This week marks Banned Books Week, during which we celebrate works that have been censored, challenged, or moved off shelves. Yet given that we’ve been treated to quite a hue and cry about censorship on campuses in 2015, it’s important to take a look at which books are being challenged, and why.
Fortunately, the American Library has been keeping tabs on the situation. And although the organization has indeed expressed alarm about a rise in calls for censorship, certainly at the high school and local library level, it’s not the “PC” crowd demanding the bans — indeed, it’s quite the opposite. In fact, “Authors of color and books with diverse content are disproportionately challenged and banned.”
Let’s look at the list: In 2014, books by Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison, Marjane Satrapi, and Khaled Hosseini, as well as books with LGBT characters and sexual content — including candid and informative sex-ed primer It’s Perfectly Normal — topped the most-challenged list. The nonfiction picture book that chronicles the family formation of two male zoo penguins, And Tango Makes Three, is perennially challenged too.
And the pattern holds over time. If you look at the most banned books in the last ten years, the list is less diverse and more notable for being dominated by a slate of YA novels that depict sex and sexuality in various iterations.
And who is doing the most challenging of books? Unfortunately, it’s parents, more than teachers, clergy, or librarians. “We believe that it is, in part, a reflection of the popularity of ‘helicopter parenting’, [or] overprotective parents, but the impulse to restrict youth access to certain books or ideas has been with us for centuries,” the ALA’s Deborah Caldwell-Stone told the Guardian. In many cases, it’s an obvious example of transference; parents are worried that their children’s exposure to difficult topic, especially sexuality, will result in behavior they deem dangerous. Yet the reality is the opposite: reading diverse and challenging stories is more likely to make readers feel more empathetic and less isolated.
“YA literature often includes realistic portrayals of the lives of teens who face challenges in their lives – which means that the characters may use profanity, express their sexuality and challenge the status quo, often to the dismay of some adults who believe that adolescents should be sheltered from such realities,” Caldwell-Stone continued. “In particular, works that that portray persons of color or who are gay or trans often become targets of challenges.”
In other words, censorship is most often being used not to challenge racism and sexism and homophobia, but to reinforce it. Banning these kids’ books is setting a bad example; in fact, it seems likely that overaggressive parental interference could set the stage for students to try to reject books that make them uncomfortable when they get to college. The only solution is for everyone to chill out and accept the existence and circulation of books on all sides of the spectrum that challenge our established views.